Columbus’ Confusion About the New World

The European discovery of America opened possibilities for those with eyes to see. But Columbus was not one of them

Christopher Columbus carried ideas that boded ill for Indies natives. (The Gallery Collection / Corbis)
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What followed is a long, complicated and unpleasant story. Columbus returned to Spain to bring the news of his discoveries. The Spanish monarchs were less impressed than he with what he had found, but he was able to round up a large expedition of Spanish colonists to return with him and help exploit the riches of the Indies. At Española the new settlers built forts and towns and began helping themselves to all the gold they could find among the natives. These creatures of the golden age remained generous. But precisely because they did not value possessions, they had little to turn over. When gold was not forthcoming, the Europeans began killing. Some of the natives struck back and hid out in the hills. But in 1495 a punitive expedition rounded up 1,500 of them, and 500 were shipped off to the slave markets of Seville.

The natives, seeing what was in store for them, dug up their own crops of cassava and destroyed their supplies in hopes that the resulting famine would drive the Spaniards out. But it did not work. The Spaniards were sure there was more gold in the island than the natives had yet found, and were determined to make them dig it out. Columbus built more forts throughout the island and decreed that every Arawak of 14 years or over was to furnish a hawk's bell full of gold dust every three months. The various local leaders were made responsible for seeing that the tribute was paid. In regions where gold was not to be had, 25 pounds of woven or spun cotton could be substituted for the hawk's bell of gold dust.

Unfortunately Española was not Ophir, and it did not have anything like the amount of gold that Columbus thought it did. The pieces that the natives had at first presented him were the accumulation of many years. To fill their quotas by washing in the riverbeds was all but impossible, even with continual daily labor. But the demand was unrelenting, and those who sought to escape it by fleeing to the mountains were hunted down with dogs taught to kill. A few years later Peter Martyr was able to report that the natives "beare this yoke of servitude with an evill will, but yet they beare it."

The tribute system, for all its injustice and cruelty, preserved something of the Arawaks' old social arrangements: they retained their old leaders under control of the king's viceroy, and royal directions to the viceroy might ultimately have worked some mitigation of their hardships. But the Spanish settlers of Española did not care for this centralized method of exploitation. They wanted a share of the land and its people, and when their demands were not met they revolted against the government of Columbus. In 1499 they forced him to abandon the system of obtaining tribute through the Arawak chieftains for a new one in which both land and people were turned over to individual Spaniards for exploitation as they saw fit. This was the beginning of the system of repartimientos or encomiendas later extended to other areas of Spanish occupation. With its inauguration, Columbus' economic control of Española effectively ceased, and even his political authority was revoked later in the same year when the king appointed a new governor.

For the Arawaks the new system of forced labor meant that they did more work, wore more clothes and said more prayers. Peter Martyr could rejoice that "so many thousands of men are received to bee the sheepe of Christes flocke." But these were sheep prepared for slaughter. If we may believe Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican priest who spent many years among them, they were tortured, burned and fed to the dogs by their masters. They died from overwork and from new European diseases. They killed themselves. And they took pains to avoid having children. Life was not fit to live, and they stopped living. From a population of 100,000 at the lowest estimate in 1492, there remained in 1514 about 32,000 Arawaks in Española. By 1542, according to Las Casas, only 200 were left. In their place had appeared slaves imported from Africa. The people of the golden age had been virtually exterminated.

Why? What is the meaning of this tale of horror? Why is the first chapter of American history an atrocity story? Bartolomé de Las Casas had a simple answer, greed: "The cause why the Spanishe have destroyed such an infinitie of soules, hath been onely, that they have helde it for their last scope and marke to gette golde." The answer is true enough. But we shall have to go further than Spanish greed to understand why American history began this way. The Spanish had no monopoly on greed.

The Indians' austere way of life could not fail to win the admiration of the invaders, for self-denial was an ancient virtue in Western culture. The Greeks and Romans had constructed philosophies and the Christians a religion around it. The Indians, and especially the Arawaks, gave no sign of thinking much about God, but otherwise they seemed to have attained the monastic virtues. Plato had emphasized again and again that freedom was to be reached by restraining one's needs, and the Arawaks had attained impressive freedom.

But even as the Europeans admired the Indians' simplicity, they were troubled by it, troubled and offended. Innocence never fails to offend, never fails to invite attack, and the Indians seemed the most innocent people anyone had ever seen. Without the help of Christianity or of civilization, they had attained virtues that Europeans liked to think of as the proper outcome of Christianity and civilization. The fury with which the Spaniards assaulted the Arawaks even after they had enslaved them must surely have been in part a blind impulse to crush an innocence that seemed to deny the Europeans' cherished assumption of their own civilized, Christian superiority over naked, heathen barbarians.


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